Archives For Postings

In this episode Jason, Teer, and Taylor talk with the world famous Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann whose 50 some books can be found on just about every pastors’ shelves.
Dr. Brueggemann shares what it means to be a community of resistance, the challenge of sabbath, and his favorite curse word to use when describing the biblical encounter between David and Bathsheba.
And he laughs. A lot.

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Be on the lookout for our upcoming episodes. David Bentley Hart answers his fans’ questions. Beverly Gaventa unpacks how to interpret Paul’s letters apocalyptically, and former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry talks about religion in the public square.

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode. Since there’s so many voices in this, I thought I’d post the video too. You can find it here.

How important are our names? What should we remember about the past? What makes a holy kiss holy? These and more questions on this episode of Strangely Warmed with “special” guest Rev. Drew Colby.

The texts are Exodus 1.8-2.10, Isaiah 51.1-6, Romans 12.1-8, Matthew 16.13-20.

And stay-tuned, this week on Crackers and Grape Juice we have the preeminent Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, followed by two weeks in a row of David Bentley Hart. Coming up we have New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa and liberation theologian Ruben Rosario Rodriguez.

And did I mention we also have a conversation with a Christian romance novelist coming up?!

Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode. Since there’s so many voices in this, I thought I’d post the video too. You can find it here.

David King is a rising sophomore at Haverford College and served as my intern this summer. He’s the sixth intern I’ve had in my time at Aldersgate, presently four of the previous five are engaged in ministry.

Here’s his final sermon for the summer on Romans 15.14-21

 

Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching.  I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content.  I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness.  I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as our country is torn.  But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I lack hope.  I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.

I would be remiss to talk about something other than the events that occurred last weekend just three hours south of here, in the valley town of Charlottesville, where the home of local slave-owner and founding father Thomas Jefferson overlooks the campus of one of the bastions of higher education in America.

On Saturday morning, just last week, a group of clergy from around the Charlottesville area and the broader Virginia community, led by the Rev. Dr. Cornel West, marched in silence through the streets of that American town, leading towards a confrontation with the largest nationalist gathering, to put it lightly, in two decades.

They marched, in silence, towards a herd of gun-carrying, Kevlar-vest wearing, pepper-spray boasting group of people who are perhaps more than ever responsible for bringing to the forefront the American plague.

They marched, in silence, towards a group of people possessed by a disease, a plague.  Perhaps, one might even call it a demon.  Or, if you are really bold enough, if you are Pauline enough, you might call it The Demon, The Devil, Satan.

When those clergy met with protestors, it was not vitriol that came forth from their mouths.  They did not spew hatred and lies.  They did not confront the Enemy, capital E, with the sword.  No, rather, what sprung from their lips was a song, one that I think you would all be familiar with.

[Sing “this Little light of mine”]

Indeed, what rang across the streets of Charlottesville in rejection of the Demon they confronted was that song, a song of resistance, a song of children, a song of innocence and beauty.  It was a song I learned in Sunday School, one that I’m sure you and you children did too.  It was a song sung for decades in resistance of the hatred our society has propagated.  And that morning in Charlottesville, it was song sung univocally, with no quivering in their voices.

In a word, it was a song sung boldly.

Or perhaps, boldly is the wrong word.  Perhaps we should rather say that it was kauchesin, the Greek word found in verse 17 of today’s scripture.  Translated in our text as boasting, it should rather be translated more accurately as “glorying.”

“Glorying.”

That’s what that song was.  And the fact of the matter is, that’s what Paul’s writing has been about.  His writing to the Romans, to the Church in Rome that he has never seen or visited, is glorying.  It is that because, just like every other word in Romans, his writing is centered on the work of God in Christ, not his own.  Paul’s work is always already not his own, but it is work through the strength of Christ and to the glory of his name.

“Glorying.”

[Sing second verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]

If you pay close attention to what Paul says in today’s scripture, you cannot help but notice that in every sentence, virtually every verse, there is some note that what he does, he can only do through a given grace, The Given Grace, of Christ.

Look at verse 15: “because of the grace given me by God.”  And verse 16: “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (note it is not Paul’s Gospel, but God’s).  And verse 17: “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason.”  And verse 18, “What Christ has accomplished through me.”  And pay special attention here, note, the subject of that sentence is not Paul! The actor, the person that the verb is referencing, it’s Jesus!).  And verse 19, “by the power of the Spirit of God.”

Paul cannot escape the fact that he can do nothing to spread the Gospel except through Christ.  In fact, it’s a reality he does not want to escape, and neither did the clergy in Charlottesville last weekend.  For while they were attacked, the attention was not on them.  While they were hurt, the song continued ringing.

And while one might think that it was the strength of the individuals there, the song coming from their mouths, that sustained them, I’d wager that every clergy member there would vehemently disagree with you.  I would even venture to say that they would use the very same language Paul uses in verse 18: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.”

In fact, they might use an even stronger translation and say this: “For I will not DARE to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me,” for those clergy know much better than you or I that we are nothing, we have nothing, we can only be nothing, if we do not have Christ.  If Christ did not die for the unworthy, for the most ungodly, then we have nothing.

But this is not bad.  We cannot be anything without Christ because Christ was, is, our everything.  I do not mean that in a cliché or meaningless way; that statement is the very thing we confess when we are baptized into the Church.  Jesus is our everything, and it is only through him that we can speak, live, breathe, and have our being.

Those clergy knew that.  And so did Paul, walking the roads of an all-too familiar empire 2000 years ago.

[Sing third verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]

“It is my ambition,” says Paul, “to proclaim the Good News.”  The Greek word, “philotimoumenon,” which here translates as ambition, more directly means “to prosecute as a point of honor.”  To proclaim, and to take honor and joy in that proclamation, is Paul’s missionary journey – and it’s ours too.

It is our missionary, apostolic vocation to walk the roads of the American Empire, and proclaim a different Lord, the only Lord.  But the effectiveness of that message, as Paul knew all too well, has little to do with us and all to do with, in the words of Karl Barth, “the strange awareness of the presence of a wholly different and incommensurable factor – Jesus Christ.”

We are remiss to forget the strangeness to which we are called, as Christians.  The strangeness of singing in the face of violence, of laying down the sword in the face of the barrel of a gun, of echoing the harmony of the heavenly chorus in the face of the Demon himself.

And let us not forget the power of this message.  Let us not forget the power of this vocation.  Let us not forget Paul.  Before he started walking, neither Asia Minor nor Greece had heard of this radical Jew from Nazareth called Jesus.  And when Paul set down his pen and joined his Lord in heaven, little communities had appeared all over Caesar’s empire, proclaiming and confessing the Risen Christ, the suffering and strange servant the prophet Isaiah foretold.

Listen closely to the passage Paul quotes here:

“Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”

Something’s not right here.  The parallels do not add up.  They do not make sense.  Those who haven’t been told will see? Those who haven’t heard will understand?  Listening and seeing don’t match; hearing and understanding don’t match.  It doesn’t make sense.

It does not make sense, that is, if we think that our first mission as Christians is to tell and force understanding.  It doesn’t make sense if we think that our first mission as Christians is to do something at all.

Let’s look at this again: “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”  You will notice that there is no 1st person tense in this sentence.  There is no “I.”  It is all 3rd person.  So when we interpret and read Paul, we have to also understand that our first mission, as Christians, is to let God do the work.  We are not called to tell the Gospel, but to show it; we are not called to teach the Gospel, but to be a living witness to it.  And that, my friends, is where the work of God becomes most clear.  When we remove the first person, when we remove ourselves and our inevitably large egos, that is where the Gospel shines through, and where the work of God is apparent.

You know, that’s why the grammar of the song the clergy sang is so important.  When their voices rang through the streets of Charlottesville, when they rose a song in the face of Nazis, the most venerable “I,” the individual, was shut out and shut away.  It was there that the work of God became clear in the midst of the Clergy.  For they knew, better than you and me combined, that they had neither lit the light nor provided the candle.  They knew that all they needed to do was “let it shine.”

But do not mistake this for a passive stance, an allowance of the virulent violence that pervades and manifests our world.  To speak of God, to sing of God is a bold stance to take, and one that glorifies the empty tomb.

Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching.  I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content.  I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness.  I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as this country is torn.  But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.

No, hope isn’t the right word.  In the midst of the pain, anger, suffering, despair, brokenness, shame, disgust, and guilt, in the midst of it all, I stand here boldly.  Or as Paul would say it, I stand here glorying.

I offer to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

I’ve invited some friends and colleagues to share their thoughts about Charlottesville, race, and our political discourse here on the blog over the coming days.

I thought I’d use the blog to create space for differing perspectives tempered by patience and hospitality- what I seldom see in our self-selected social media echo chambers, especially at this (rightly) heated cultural moment.

That my friend did not feel comfortable sharing his name with his reflection underscores, I think, the damage we so often do in our online fury.

This is from Ben Maddison:

I’ve seen this going around, a lot: “If you’ve wondered what you would’ve done during slavery, the Holocaust, or Civil Rights movement…you’re doing it now.”

Short, pithy, biting–the perfect smirk-response to today’s situation. For whatever reason it gets posted, the statement is “supposed” to rouse us from complacency; it’s supposed to spur us to action; it’s supposed to slap us across the face with the brunt realization that we are living history. But it does something else.

It accuses.

“Lex semper accusat; the law always accuses.”

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We could use standing accused to the reality that it’s not what goes in that defiles, but what comes out. “The heart is deceitful and wicked and who can know it.”

The reason the phrase stings is because we know that in each of us is a supporter of slavery, a Holocaust accomplice, or a silent Civil Rights observer.

This saying makes us stop and recognize that, when push comes to shove, we aren’t the agents and movers of change we wish we were–we are the silent majority, tacitly supporting systems of injustice because they don’t directly affect us or are easy to ignore or are inconvenient to combat. To put it in other words, the saying hurts because it reminds us that we are sinners, incapable of saving ourselves.

The only thing that will help is Jesus. But there is Good News; the same law that accuses, speaks to a larger truth.

The REASON it accuses is because God hates injustice, God despises hatred, and because God’s wrath will be poured out on those institutions and systems.

But even before that, God did intervene. God sent Jesus Christ to the world to bring us back to God. And as much as God hopes it would happen by listening and comprehending, it was brought to fruition by the death of His son…death at the hands of same forces and systems of injustice, oppression, bigotry, hatred, self-interest, and dehumanization that are exerting their final death gasps now.

We have a God, then, who doesn’t just hate what is going on in places like Charlottesville, but we have a God who knows what it means to lose a child to those systems. God stands with, and calls us to stand with, the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Grey, Sandra Bland, and countless others who are being killed and destroyed by these forces. God demands that we love justice and show mercy, because God knows what happens when we can’t. Because God is one of those parents.

And here’s the thing: we aren’t expected to do any of this alone. God knows that it’s hard work. For those like myself (white, cis, hetero, privileged), it’s going to hurt because we must say “I am a sinner; here is my sin; I repent and return to the Lord.” And do that…again and again and again. But our (nay, MY) uncomfortability, shame, or whatever we/I feel(s) pales in comparison to the pain experienced by our African-American, Latino, Native-American, [insert everyone abused by Whites ever] over the last 500 years (and much longer). And, even if this work seems impossible or too much or not enough or takes too long, we can be certain of two things:

Christ is already victorious.

God is working and inspiring this work.

Sometimes the work means marching. But often times it means praying, repenting, listening, and working. This means less Facebook rants from me, and more listening to others. This means learning more, seeking understanding, and having compassion and mercy and grace.

Because I’m not better off or further along or anything like that. I am a sinner in need of saving, and I cry out to the Lord:

Have mercy on me and save me. Forgive me of my tacit support for injustice. Cleanse me of my family’s sin of white supremacy and racial injustice. Use me to help others get to this place, that Your grace might flow like a river, you mercy like springs of water, and justice like the ceaseless ocean waves, from age to age. Amen.

I’ve invited some friends and colleagues to share their thoughts about Charlottesville, race, and our political discourse here on the blog over the coming days.

I thought I’d use the blog to create space for differing perspectives tempered by patience and hospitality- what I seldom see in our self-selected social media echo chambers, especially at this (rightly) heated cultural moment.

That my friend did not feel comfortable sharing his name with his reflection underscores, I think, the damage we so often do in our online fury.

This is from E:

“A few thoughts based on some recent events but, more importantly, based some of the commentary I’ve seen.

For obvious reasons, I’d be censored for saying this to anyone but you, in private, a friend. I think there has to be, in general, less self-righteouss fury on the left, not over this incident in particular (all should go for it, here) but in general.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that the left, especially those who are white, upper, middle-class, have tried to co-opt these 400 years of oppression toward especially African Americans and Native Americans (but, in general, minorities or any new immigrant group in general) in any which way they can, usually funneling it into their own myopic agendas concerning other “oppressed” groups.

I wonder if we need fewer white people posting things on Facebook, exuding this pseudo-fury and self-congratulatory fervor, and more reconciling themselves to a very real history in and through the Euchrarist and the bravery Eucharist calls for in the world: to love and reconcile ourselves to all our neighbors.

In this case, there must be an invitation toward reconciliation as we cannot reconcile in the same mode that we oppressed:

Through demand.

Here’s what I think might be important: let’s listen for once.

After all, it’s mostly my white, upper-class friends who insist on their world-views with the whitest of male attitudes (the worst name you can call someone on the left right now):

with a desire to conquer and dominate those who disagree genuinely.

There’s the double irony in the left’s demand that white people should shut up in that the demand insists on talking the whole time and reframing the issue around an image of looking progressive.

I’d also add that, in the name of progress, we enslaved, saving “sub-human animals” from themselves–a very real way that progressives of one era thought. We did the same with Native Americans. In other words, I’m a little suspicious of anything done in the name of progress, at least with the unbridled moralisms in which such agendas are pursued today.

If I haven’t been offensive enough-

I also have a feeling that the left is the new Christian right.

The left is the new Christian right in its willingness to censor and despise for its narrowly moralistic worldview. Hence, I have to write you, a fellow truth-seeker and conversation partner–one who I know can converse with me on these points rather than merely get angry–in private so that I don’t get ostracized by a group of people that I sincerely disagree with and, nonetheless love, like at one and the same time.

Can the contemporary progressive, leftist, or liberal offer me the same?

I fear not.”

Jason, Teer, Taylor, and Morgan hosted the Second Annual Live Podcast/Pub Theology at the Virginia Annual Conference 2017 with special guest Dr. Jeffrey Pugh.

Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode. Since there’s so many voices in this, I thought I’d post the video too. You can find it here.

Sale & Schedule

Jason Micheli —  August 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

Hey Folks!

I wanted to let you know that my publisher, Fortress Press, is running a YUGE ebook sale.  It’ll run August 15-September 15 and in that time you can get my book for the insultingly low price of $3.99. 

Seriously, that’s cheaper than a latte. You can gift it to someone you love (or loathe).

Click here to get it on Amazon.

Click here to get it on Barnes and Noble.

While I’m busy self-promoting, I’ll be on the road over the coming months speaking and preaching. If you’re in the area, check it out and say hello.

August 25-26: Theology Beer Camp – Oklahoma City

August 27: Preaching at Snow Hill Baptist Church – Oklahoma City

September 7: Speaking at Florida United Methodist Clergy – Orlando

September 23-24: Speaking at Camp Phoenix – Richmond

October 1: Speaking at the Loft LA Church – Los Angeles

October 6-8: Speaking at Young Adult Retreat – San Juan Capistrano

February 4: Preaching at Plantation United Methodist Church – Florida

 

Friday afternoon my oldest son and I milled around downtown Charlottesville in the hours before the tiki-torch bearing scare mob descended from the Rotunda, spouting racist nonsense whose ultimate Author I feel compelled by faith to name as Satan.

“Dad, don’t make any jokes about your being Jewish!” I laughed not sure that I should be laughing.

We saw the empty Emancipation Park with the barricades up festooned in police tape. We saw the omnipresent homeless looking dazed and curious about the stage craft setting up around them. We saw the lonely looking white men boys we’d later recognize in the Washington Post, their faces illumined by flame and fury.

There’s an elementary school near the park there in Charlottesville. Mostly African American kids. I used to work there in their After School program, M-F, when I was an undergraduate. Summers too.

I thought of Christopher Yates the boy who had no father at home whom I took to Long John Slivers on occasion. Back then, he had no idea there were people in the world who looked like me who hated people like him simply because they looked him.

Loitering in Charlottesville Friday with my son, who is not white and growing in to an ugly but necessary awareness of that fact, I thought of Christopher.

And I got pi@#$%.

Right after he’s baptized, Jesus goes to Galilee. ‘Galilee’ is Mark’s shorthand way of saying ‘on the other side of the tracks. As soon as he arrives, a leper comes up to Jesus. Gets down on his knees begging. Leprosy assaults your body as your skin rots away. But ‘leprosy also attacks your social network.

It brings you isolation. It makes you unclean. It leaves you socially unacceptable’ (Walter Brueggemann). So not only does leprosy makes sick, it stigmatizes you. Which, if you weren’t already, makes you poor.

And according to the Law of Moses, a leper’s ‘uncleanness’ can only be ritually removed by a duly vested priest. This leper obviously knows the rules don’t give Jesus the right to cleanse him. That’s why he gives Jesus an out: “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” And Mark says that ‘moved with anger’ Jesus stretches out his hand and Jesus touches this untouchable leper- touches him before he heals him- and Jesus says: “I do choose. Be made clean!”

And while the leprosy leaves him, Jesus doesn’t say ‘come and follow me’ or ‘your faith has made you well.’

No, Mark says Jesus snorts “with indignation.”

ὀργισθείς

Here’s the money question Mark wants you to puzzle out:

     Why is Jesus so angry?

Because this pushy leper didn’t say the magic word?

Because now all anyone will want from him are miracles?

Because this leper is only interested in a cure not carrying a cross?

Why is Jesus so angry?

     In order to answer that question, you have to ask another one:

     Why does Jesus send this ex-leper to show himself to the priests?

The answer Mark wants you to tease out is that this ex-leper had already gone to the priests and with the same question: ‘Will you declare me clean?’

Jesus is angry. Jesus snorts with indignation. Jesus huffs and puffs because before this leper begged Jesus, he went before the priests. Just as the Bible instructs.

And they turned him away.

You see, the priests in Jesus’ day charged money for the ritual cleansing. And money, if you were a leper, is something you didn’t have. So not only were lepers marginalized and ostracized, they were victimized too. And that, Mark says, makes for one PO’d Messiah.

What Would Jesus Do?

As often as we ask ourselves that question, ‘Get Torqued Off’ isn’t usually what comes to mind.

Jesus only has 19 verses of actual ministry under his belt here and already he’s righteously mad. And Jesus keeps on getting angry, again and again, in Mark’s Gospel.

When a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus in church and the Pharisees look on in apathy, Jesus gets angry. And when Jesus rides into Jerusalem and sees what’s going on, Jesus gets angry and throws a Temple tantrum. And when Peter brings a sword to protect the Prince of Peace, Jesus gets angry and scolds him.

We tend to think that anger is a bad thing, that it’s something to be stamped out not sought after. Some have even numbered anger a ‘deadly sin.’ But we believe that Jesus was fully human, in him was the full complement of sinless human emotions.

Not only do we believe Jesus was fully human, scripture calls Jesus the 2nd Adam.

Meaning: Jesus wasn’t just truly human; he’s the True Human.

He’s not only fully human; he’s the only human- the only one to ever be as fully alive as God made each of us to be. 

Yet Jesus is angry all the time. So anger isn’t always or necessarily a bad thing.

Instead of a flaw in our humanity, anger could be a way for us to become more human, as fully human as Jesus. But how do we know the difference? Between anger as a vice and anger as a virtue?

Scripture speaks of sin as ‘missing the mark.’  That is, sin is when our actions or desires are aimed towards something other than what God intends. When you read straight through the Gospels, you notice how Jesus gets angry…all the time.

But what Jesus gets angry at-

is injustice, oppression, poverty

suffering and stigmatization

abuse and apathy.

That’s the kind of anger that hits God’s mark.

As a pastor, I run into people all the time who are convinced either that God is angry at them OR that the god of the Bible is an angry god.

So let me just say it plain:

     The love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for us is unconditional.

     Because the love between the Father, Son and Spirit is unceasing.

     God’s love for us is unchanging because GOD IS UNCHANGING.

We cannot earn God’s love, no matter how hard we try. We cannot lose God’s love, no matter how hard we try. God does not change his mind about us. Because God does not change his mind. Because God does not change.

     God IS NOT ANGRY.

     God CANNOT EVER BE ANGRY.

     Because he’s God.

But Jesus, the True Human Person, the 2nd Adam, the Fully Human One, he gets Angry.

And that means…so should we.

I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning white folks this week commenting on social media, counseling against ‘adding fuel to the fire’ by adding their own anger and outrage. I’m as guilty as the next comfortable white guy of commending moderation simply because it’s the medium that best comports with my comfort. So I sympathize. I also believe in the Gospel which tells me Jesus died not for the saintly social justice warrior but for the ungodly, and I can think of no better image of ungodly than that picture of tiki-torch lit rage on a face like mine in front of a statue of a slave master like Thomas Jefferson.

Nonetheless, I not only believe Jesus is God but I believe Jesus is the (only) true human being which means to react to Charlottesville with something less than rage and anger (see: Trump, The Donald) would, quite literally, make me less than human.

Our friend of the podcast, Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, was present this Saturday for the counter-demonstration to the alt-right Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. We thought it was important to hear from Jeffrey about his experiences and observations. We also thought it important to extend his thoughts as far as possible so we invited a handful of other podcasters to join us for the conversation.

Todd Littleton of the Patheological Podcast, Scott Jones and Bill Borror of New Persuasive Words, Doug Pagitt of Doug Pagitt Radio all participated with us.

Here it is.

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It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode. Since there’s so many voices in this, I thought I’d post the video too. You can find it here.

     My Alexandria neighbor, Richard Spencer,  and the alt-right have planned a Unite the Right rally near my alma mater, in Charlottesville, Va. It’s set for tomorrow to lament the loss of white culture and protest the removal of a confederate statue downtown. Various clergy collectives have counter-demonstrations planned that day, which I’d attend if I did not have a funeral to preside.

Below my man-crush and muse, Stanley Hauerwas, speaks Christian about race in a way I often find lacking in the public square and on social media.

“Standing up to evil” or “Resisting hate” or “Equality not hate” are laudable sentiments but, from a Christian perspective, they’re just that, sentiments. They are so because they are insufficiently Christian.

The word justice is unintelligible for Christians apart from the content named by Jesus Christ. Appeals to equality are likewise spurious for Christians, for Christians can rightly remember our nation’s history and we know the white men who wrote about equality at our founding were all slaveholders.

And hate and evil aren’t specific enough words for Christians to describe racism.

Sin is the word Christians must use first.

Our sin of racism is how the Power of Sin, and our bondage to it, manifests itself in the world.

If there’s a contribution Christians can make to the public square when it comes race, it’s speaking Christian.

Christians must resist racism as Christians not as Americans.

Keeping our lingo liturgical not political for the one to whom we offer our liturgy is a more compelling and powerful politics. For example, for Christians, particularly white progressive Christians, the first step in combating racism and privilege is acknowledging one’s own culpability and blindness; that is, confession.

A posture of confession can avoid perpetuating antagonisms such that everyone becomes ensconced in their positions; moreover, confession is a practice that produces empathy not only for the victims of racism but the victimizers as well. Empathy for only the former leads to self-righteousness that further inflames the latter. Empathy for the latter is the offense Paul calls ‘Gospel.’ Only such an empathy that sees, as Hauerwas puts it, “Slave holders were trapped too” approximates the love revealed to us through the God who died for the ungodly.

Stanley says:

…African Americans were persecuted and you have to give a reason for that.  If you had black skin, it justified you not having the position that whites had.  And this has become a self- fulfilling project.  Blacks live the life that confirms the stereotypes and now part of the challenge for African Americans is not to let this happen… White liberals need black suffering for moral identity but it is very destructive to use white guilt to further your cause because the guilty get tired of being guilty.

Then there is the game of “I’ve been more victimized than you have been.”  Some are given moral identity through the status of victimization but you need them for moral identity more than they need you and that does not underwrite the narrative of victimization.

[We get out we get out of the trap of history] through forgiveness and reconciliation.  But we have to first be willing to be forgiven. Giving forgiveness puts us in a position of power. We must not let history be our fate but history must be one that aims at reconciliation. White slave holders were trapped too. They didn’t know any other way of being. Racists are trapped. Offer an alternative, another way of life is to offer reconciliation.

If I were an African American, I’m not sure I would trust a white person.

We have trouble imagining the everyday slights that are part and parcel of a racialized society.  For example, a few years ago, they were having a debate as to whether or not there should be a black cultural center.  White liberals thought, “No, that’s re-segregation.”  African Americans have to live around whites that have very different styles and habits.  You need to get away.  Worship is a good work but we have to find a creative way of doing this… With the best of wills, we have a lot of trouble understanding white privilege. Power dulls the imagination.

The argument of whether or not slaves could be baptized- they were baptized and that was the signal that slavery was a clear contradiction… because you baptize human beings.  Christians produce knowledge of its bad faith through the practice of worship.

For Episode #107 we talk with Rob Lee about “those millennials.”
Millennials are a segment of our population that appears to be the unicorn most churches cannot seem to catch. From hiring staff who look the part to inserting young clergy into communities, hoping to attract young people, most churches do not know what do with or how to minister to millennials.
While some argue it is time to abandon millennials, Pastor Rob Lee argues otherwise. Rob believes millennials are willing to invest their lives in the institution because they believe in the church’s resurrecting power, but the question is, do our communities believe in the people they say they are trying to serve?

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“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Cue the candidate’s response: “I do.”

Recently I presented on the Lordship of Christ at a retreat for ordinands. A friend presented on the sacraments. When she got to discussing the rite for baptism she mentioned how this second vow from the United Methodist liturgy about our freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression meant a lot more to her of late.

In the wake of The Donald’s election, she didn’t need to add.

Afterwards, as headed home, I half-joked to her that “I don’t think the Apostle Paul was quite as sunny as our Book of Worship about our power and potential to resist.”

“I’d like to talk more about that sometime,” she replied.

I shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t much matter though since we’ve excised Satan from the baptismal liturgy anyways. That we might be wrong about our power isn’t a problem if the Power of Satan is no longer the problem.”

I was only half-joking.

J. Louis Martyn writes that for the Apostle Paul:

“The Church is God’s apocalyptic beachhead and Paul sees in baptism the juncture by which the person both participates in the death of Christ (Romans 6.4) and is equipped with the armor for apocalyptic battle (Romans 13.22).”

Baptism, for Paul, is both a being put to death and an ongoing empowerment by God the Holy Spirit. Through baptism and the baptized, God contends against Another: Satan, whom Paul variously makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, and the Principalities and Powers.

Not only does God put us to death in Christ through baptism, transferring us from the Lordship of Death to the Lordship of Grace, prior to baptism we are slaves to Death and after, Paul says, slaves to righteousness. Or, as Paul puts elsewhere, apart from the righteousness of God in Christ, Sin is a Power who we are all under and from whom not one of us has the freedom or the power to liberate ourselves.

Christians then have peculiar definitions for freedom and power, and we have a more specific set of names for evil and injustice. Prior to our baptism in to Christ, we have no freedom or power at all, as we are captives to the anti-God Powers, and proceeding baptism freedom is slavery to the righteousness of God. This is why Paul doesn’t use the language of repentance, as the baptismal liturgy does. It makes no sense to tell prisoners to repent their way out of captivity; they can only be delivered.

While God has defeated the Power of Satan through Cross and Resurrection, once for all, this defeat, though real, is not yet realized. God is yet contending against a Power whose defeat is sure if not surrendered. Thus Paul reveals the theme of his letter to the Romans only at the very end: “The God of Peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”

In the sacraments, says theologian Joseph Mangina in Baptism at the Turning of the Ages, “the apocalypse (invasion/irruption/revealing) of God in Jesus Christ becomes an apocalypse now.”

Baptism and Eucharist, in other words, are means (for Paul, in Romans, the Gospel kerygma itself is the primary means) by which God invades territory held by an Enemy, a world that, as the Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal service once put it: “…is the realm of Sin and Satan.”

Note how different that is than today’s baptismal question:

“…evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Here, evil, injustice, and oppression present themselves in varying forms in our world. There is no acknowledged agency behind them.

In the older liturgies (and Romans 8) evil, injustice, and oppression are the forms by which the Power Sin/Satan/Death manifests in our world.

What’s critical about the apocalyptic character of Word and Sacrament in Paul is the active agency of God. When it comes to resisting evil and injustice, God never stops being the subject of the verbs. Even our growth into Christ likeness Paul casts in the passive voice: “…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed…”

It is not that God begins this process of transformation in Christ and then hands it off to us to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Indeed apart from the activity of God in and upon us, we cannot be trusted to identify evil or rightly to resist injustice for the insidious Power of Sin is such that in can corrupt even our best religious impulses. 

God is the acting agent of our transformation into conformity to Christ from beginning to end, acting against the agency of the Enemy.

Likely, Paul would put our baptismal question in the passive as well:

Do you trust that you will be used by God to resist…?

In much of our liturgical practice today, we’ve demythologized the rites such that Satan becomes vague, as in, “spiritual forces of wickedness” or, worse, vaguely anthropocentric, as in, “injustice and oppression.”

Even worse is the example in the present Book of Common Prayer: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

As Joseph Mangina notes: “Striving for justice and peace, respecting human dignity- these high, humanitarian aspirations are as generic as they are idealistic. It is not clear what they are doing in a Christian baptismal liturgy…for only by the agency of Christ can we grasp the true contours of ‘justice’ and ‘peace.’ “

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the baptism ritual asks the candidates questions such as “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching…will you persevere in resisting evil…will you seek and serve Christ…?”

In each case, the requisite reply is “I will, with God’s help.” 

In the previous iterations of the Book of Common Prayer, similar questions required a much stronger affirmation of God’s agency (and betrayed much less interest in our own potential): “God being my helper.” 

The prescribed answer in the United Methodist Book of Worship: “I do.” 

Note the (only) subject of the verb.

God’s agency is assumed to the point of obscurity.

Compare this to the Tridentine rite- if you’ve seen Godfather I you’ve seen it.

Salt is placed on the infant’s tongue to protect it from corruption by the Power of Sin. The priest performs an exorcism, blowing 3 times, on the child. The confession of faith is followed by a robust renunciation: Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his pomps?

Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer kept the exorcism as part of the baptismal rite but it disappeared as the biblical worldview waned and the modern liberal world waxed. In fact, the shift from God as acting subject responsible for faith to acted upon object of our faith, from theology to anthropology, in modern Enlightenment theology is mirrored in worship.

Ludwig Feuerbach famously (and correctly) diagnosed most Christian speech about God as really being speech about ourselves. We could not turn to some of our liturgical texts to disprove him.

Compared to the Tridentine rite and the Book of Common Prayer of John Wesley’s day, the emphasis, intentional or not, in our contemporary liturgies is on human promise-making at the expense of God’s singular action in Jesus Christ. This sole agency of God is itself the foundational principle of baptism’s un-repeatablity. In the act of baptism and in the life of the baptized thereafter, God is the acting agent, overturning the world.

“That a Christian has been baptized should be nothing less than a cause for astonishment,” Joseph Mangina says, for it is the work of the Living God.

Such astonishment at the agency of God is either muted or altogether missing in any question where we are the answer: I do. 

     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans with 12.1-2, 9-16.

Pay attention to the passive voice:

“Our society is broken, pretty much, but there will be a time when these times will be made right.”

“…these times will be made right” said the principal of Goose Creek High School in Charleston, South Carolina.

“…these times will be made right” he said just days after Dylann Roof stormed into Mother Emmanuel AME Church and shot 9 parishioners gathered for bible study. One of the nine victims was the track coach at Goose Creek High School.

“…these times will be made right.”

Which is to say, despite the brokenness we can see everywhere an unseen agency is at work, making right. Or as Paul would say, rectifying.

Only four days after Dylann Roof stormed into Emmanuel AME and left six black women and 3 black men in a bloody pile in the church basement, the leaders of the congregation concluded the only way to press forward was for them to go back to exactly what they’d done before, to do the Sunday after that shooting what they had done the Sunday previous.

Worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

Proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel which Paul says is the rectifying power of God unleashed in our world (1.16-17).

Preaching that Sunday at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Reverend Norvel Goff, an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaimed: “through our proclamation of the Gospel on this day a message will be sent to Satan.”

Note the passive voice again: “through our proclamation…a message will be sent.”

The worshippers at Emmanuel Church were not the ones sending the message.

Later in his sermon, his voice roaring, Reverend Goff added: “Something wants to divide us- black and brown and white- but no weapon formed against us shall prosper.”

Notice- he didn’t say Dylann Roof wanted to divide us. He didn’t say racists and bigots want to divide us. Something wants to divide us– there’s another agency at work in the world.

Speaking of that other agency, that same Sunday, outside the church, the Reverend Brandon Bowers, who is white and the pastor of Awaken Church, said: “What the Enemy intended for evil, God is using- God is using us- for good.”

He said Enemy with a capital E- even the NY Times caught it.

And he did not say we’re using this for good.

Pay attention to the passive: “God is using us for good.”

We’re being used by God for good.

The service at Mother Emmanuel AME Church began with a hymn: “You are the Source of my strength, you are the strength of my life.”

Meanwhile, while they sang at Emmanuel AME, the family of 21 year old Dylann Roof worshipped at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

The pastor of St. Paul’s read the names of the victims and the congregation prayed for them and their families. The victimizer’s family prayed for the victims and their families.

About the victimizer’s family, the pastor of St. Paul told his congregation later: “They are shattered but through their faith they are being made strong.”

“…they are being made strong.”

——————————

     “…these times will be made by right.”

——————————

     Pay attention to the passive:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…do not be haughty…do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…overcome evil with good.”

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed… but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

If you don’t understand what the therefore is there for, not only do you miss Paul’s point here you mishear this passage as bad news instead of good, as burdensome rather than freeing.

Because, let’s face it-

Genuine, 100% of the time, love

Unflagging zeal

Patience in suffering

Perseverance in prayer

Feeding your enemies

I’ve been here coming on my 13th year and I don’t know any of you who score better than a D on this long list of attributes of what transformation looks like. I’d bet the house that behind closed doors Pope Francis doesn’t do better than a B-.

I mean, half of you can’t even get along on Facebook, let alone blessing those who curse you. This is DC- a lot of you make your livelihood claiming to be wiser than you really are.

“Do not be haughty?” So long as Donald Trump is in office that’s an impossible command for some of you.

Assuming it’s a command, that is.

If you don’t know what the therefore is there for, you’ll mishear this passage.

You won’t hear it as Gospel. You’ll hear it- if you’re honest enough to admit it- as a guilt trip. You’ll hear it as a To Do list of musts and shoulds, as a prescription of what we have to do.

Without the therefore there, you’ll hear Paul saying: A real transformed Christian looks like this…a genuine Christian must do this…must love enemies, must bless those who curse them, must be patient in suffering and ardent about their faith.

     No.

That’s what the therefore is there for.

The therefore signals that what comes next depends upon what came before.

The therefore signals that what proceeds is possible only because of what preceded.

The therefore signals that what follows is a part of everything prior.

Or, in other words, chapter 12 comes after chapter 11.

Chapter 12 comes after chapter 8 and chapter 6 and chapter 5 and 3 and 1.

The therefore is there for you to remember that what comes next here in chapter 12 continues and concludes what has come before.

Just before this, the verse that sets up this therefore- it’s a doxology. It’s a song of praise, thanking God for the work of God to save all of God’s creation (11.33-36).

And before that, Paul has said that even the disbelief of some is a part of God’s work to show mercy to all. Before that, Paul has said that the all-ness of God’s saving work includes not just creatures like you and me but all of creation.

All of creation because all of creation, Paul has said before, is in captivity to the Power of Sin with a capital S. A Power that, just before, Paul made synonymous with the Power of Death with a capital D.

A Power, Paul said before that, whose power we are all under such that not one of us can free ourselves. We have no power against this Power. We’re prisoners, Paul has said before.

Which gets back to what Paul said just before that, at the very beginning of his argument (and remember, it is all one, long argument). In his thesis statement at the beginning, before the therefore and everything else, Paul announced that his letter is about what God is doing:

“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for in it the rectifying power of God is invading [the world].”

You can only invade territory held by an Enemy.

The Gospel is the Power of God to take God’s world back from the Enemy who binds it. The Gospel, Paul has said, is the means by which God takes God’s world back from the One who holds it captive.

Pay attention to the present tense.

The Gospel isn’t about what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

Everything that has come before the therefore has been about God’s doing.

     You didn’t invite Jesus into your heart. God has poured God’s love into your heart through the Holy Spirit, Paul has said.

You didn’t journey to God. God has transferred you from the dominion of Sin into the dominion of grace.

You didn’t decide to become a new you. God killed off your old self- you have died with Christ- and now you are in Christ.

You didn’t sign up to serve God. God has set you free from slavery to Sin and Death and made you instead a slave of righteousness.

It’s all been about what God does.

——————————

     So, why should we suppose that when he gets to this point in his letter Paul is suddenly talking about us, about what we do?

What the therefore is there for is to remind you that what comes next describes what God is doing not what we do.

It’s proclamation not exhortation.

It’s indicative not imperative.

The therefore is there so you don’t mistake this as a prescription of what we must do: We must be genuine in love. We must be patient in suffering. We must be zealous for God all the time. We must bless those who curse us and love our enemies. 

If there’s a must or a should or a have-to in your sentences, you’re not speaking Gospel.

The therefore is there for you to know this is not a prescription of who you must be or what you must do. It’s a description of who Jesus Christ is and what God is doing.

Pay attention to the passive: “I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

We’re not the ones doing the transforming.

The therefore is there for you to see that this transformation isn’t up to us. You’re not left to your lonesome to live up to impossible ideals. The point of this passage isn’t that you have to become a new you; it’s that you are being made new.

By God.

By the mercies of God, Paul says.

That’s not a throwaway religious cliche.

The word Paul uses there, dia, refers to the instrumentality of God, i.e, what Paul is saying: Only by the merciful activity of God upon you can you be conformed not to this world but transformed into conformity to Jesus Christ.

That’s different.

That’s different than Paul simply telling you to emulate and imitate Jesus. Jesus didn’t even have an easy time being Jesus; how could you possibly emulate and imitate him? No, Paul’s not exhorting you to imitate Jesus.

Paul’s already told you before, back in chapter 6, by faith and by baptism- by God- you NOW are in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t mean that as a metaphor.

You are in Jesus Christ.

And now- therefore- Paul is telling you, God is shaping you into Christ likeness.

Patience in suffering. Blessing those who curse you. Perseverance in prayer. Genuine love. This isn’t a To Do list or a Christian Code of Conduct. They’re not exhortations or expectations. They’re attributes of Christ.

He’s describing the mind of Christ.

The mind according to which God is at work to conform us.

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

Pay attention to the language.

That word renewing- it’s anakainosis. It means literally “completely taken over.”

God is at work to transform you. To conform you to Christ.

To completely take over your mind with the mind of Christ.

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no sin (why?) so that (therefore) we might become the righteousness of God.”

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Philippians: “…the God who began a good work in you will in the fullness of time bring it to completion.” Not, you now have to bring it to completion. God will bring it to completion.

What Paul says here is what Paul said at the very beginning of this letter:

The Gospel, what we announce in Word and Sacrament- it is the power of Almighty God to invade, to completely take over, until you are rectified, put right, according to the mind of Christ in whose image you are made.

And through you…the world.

“…these times will be made right.”

——————————

     Pay attention to the passive.

Last May, Dennis and I attended Hedy’s graduation from Wesley Theological Seminary, held at the National Cathedral.

The pastor of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, killed by Dylann Roof, would’ve been in the graduating class.

They awarded his degree posthumously, and when it came time for Reverend Pinckney’s name to be read, they invited his wife Jennifer forward to receive his diploma and to speak.

She acknowledged that the ceremony was a bittersweet moment for her. She painted a picture of her husband asleep in his man cave, his coursework still on his lap. And then she confessed that she’d had no idea what to say to those gathered there in the cathedral.

She’d had no idea what to say.

‘But then,’ she said, ‘I was hit with the words to share.’

I was hit.

By God. By the Holy Spirit.

And what followed was plain and unremarkable, but it was powerful- more so than the sermon that had come before, a sermon that had been all exhortation, an exhausting litany of musts and shoulds.

But what Jennifer Pinkney from Emmanuel AME Church said was powerful not because of the pathos of the moment nor for the profundity of her words.

It was powerful because she had reminded us- testified to us- that God is real.

God is living.

Acting.

At work: “…I was hit with what to say…”

——————————-

     Look-

You can’t become unflagging in your zeal by exerting more zeal.

You don’t persevere in prayer by practicing prayer.

Your love doesn’t become genuine through effort.

You don’t achieve patience in suffering by enduring it.

Blessing those who curse you doesn’t come about by you biting your tongue.

You can forgive 70 x 7 times but if it takes in your heart even 1 of those times it’s not your own doing.

You don’t walk in newness of life because you set out to do so.

You don’t become lovers of enemies by trying- neither will they cease to be your enemy because you’ve attempted to love them.

     None of it is possible for you to do.

     But all of it is possible for the Living God to do in you.

The therefore is there for you to remember that the Christian life is pointless if the God we serve is not a Living God.

The therefore is there for you to remember that Christianity is bigger than simply doing the things Jesus did because you can’t do any of the things Jesus did if God did not raise him from the dead to conform and transform you.

And sure that takes different kind of patience, sure that sounds messier and slower and more frustrating than if Paul just handed us a simple To Do List of Musts and Shoulds.

But our understanding of the Gospel, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian, should at least require that Jesus Christ is alive and at work in the world.

—————————-

     The Sunday after Dylann Roof shot nine at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston members of Citadel Baptist Church, a white Southern Baptist Church with a long and complicated relationship with racism, walked the mere steps from their church to Emmanuel Church and they placed purple daises around the front of Emmanuel.

The Reverend David Walker, pastor of Citadel Baptist, explained the gesture thus.

Pay attention to the passive: “Something compelled us to do this…”

Christ is Risen indeed.

   

 

 

Lisa Sharon Harper thinks it can.
In this episode, talks with us about how radical and beautiful 19th century evangelicalism was in its contributions to the abolitionist and suffragist movement. And she shares why she thinks that Genesis 1 is the key to understanding the Christian gospel.
Lisa works at Sojourners and is the author of the recent book The Really Good Gospel.

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Razing Hell

Jason Micheli —  July 31, 2017 — 3 Comments

        Here’s my sermon from this weekend, continuing our summer series through Romans. The text was Romans 11.25-32.  

Back in the day, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you, I worked for a couple of years as a chaplain at the maximum security prison in Trenton, New Jersey.

I enjoyed it.

In a lot of ways, the Gospel makes more sense in a place like that than anywhere else. Not to mention, preaching is different when the men hearing you aren’t there because their wives or mothers have forced their attendance.

So I enjoyed the prison, but I didn’t enjoy everything about the job.

Part of my routine, every week, was to visit and counsel the inmates in solitary confinement. It was a sticky, hot, dark wing of the prison. Because every inmate was locked behind a heavy, steel door with just a sliver of thick plexiglass for a window, unlike the rest of the prison, the solitary wing was as silent as a tomb. Whenever I think of Hell, I think of that place.

But not for the reasons you might expect.

Whenever I visited solitary, the officer on duty was almost always a 50-something Sergeant named Moore.

Officer Moore had a thick, Mike Dikta mustache and coarse sandy hair he combed into a meticulous, greased part. He was tall and strong and, to be honest, intimidating. He had a Marine Corps tattoo on one forearm and a heart with a woman’s name on the other arm.

Whenever I visited solitary he’d buzz me inside only after I refused to go away. He’d usually be sitting down, gripping the sides of his desk, reading a newspaper. I hated going there because, every time I did, he’d greet me heated ridicule.

      He’d grumble things like: ‘Save your breath, preacher, you’re wasting your time.’

He’d grumble things like: ‘Do you know what these people did? They don’t deserve forgiveness.’

He’d grumble things like: ‘They only listen to you because they’ve got no one else.’

Once, when we gathered for a worship service, I’d invited Officer Moore to join us.

He grumbled that he’d have ‘nothing to do with a God who’d have anything to do with trash like them’ and he refused to come in.

Instead he sat outside with his arm crossed. The locked prison door between us.

About halfway through my time at the prison, Officer Moore suffered a near fatal heart attack; in fact, he was dead for several minutes before the rescue squad revived him.

I know this because when he returned to work, he told me. Tried to throw it in my face.

‘It’s all a sham’ he grumbled at me one afternoon.

‘I was dead for 3 minutes. Dead. And you know what I experienced? Nothing. I didn’t see any bright light at the end of any tunnel. It was just darkness. Your god? All make believe.’

Back then- at the beginning of my ministry, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you- I tended towards sarcasm. So even though I don’t put much stock in the light at the end of the tunnel cliche, that didn’t stop me from saying to Sergeant Moore:

‘Maybe you should take that as a warning.

Maybe there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for you.’

He grumbled and said: ‘Don’t tell me you believe in Hell?’

‘What makes you think I wouldn’t believe in Hell?’ I asked, playing with him.

‘Oh, since I don’t believe in your Jesus, I’m going to Hell? Is that it?’

Officer Moore pushed his chair back and fussed with his collar. He suddenly seemed uncomfortable. His eyes took a bead on me. ‘So what the Hell’s Hell like then?’ he asked, smirking. ‘Fire and brimstone, I mean, really?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘fire, brimstone, gnashing of teeth, those are probably all metaphors.’

He let out a sarcastic sigh of relief.  So then I added: ‘Metaphors for something much worse maybe.’

That got his attention.

‘Your loving God sends people to a place worse than brimstone just because they don’t believe in him?’ he asked.

     ‘Who said anything about God sending them there?’ I said.

‘No, I think Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside.’

Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and mature pastor you see before you, so I didn’t mention to him that I’d plagiarized that line from C.S. Lewis.

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Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside. 

By us.

I said.

Back then.

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But is it?

Is that even possible?

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“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks 3 chapters prior to today’s text.

If God is for us- all of us

If God is determined to reconcile and redeem all of us

And not only us-

If God is determined to rescue and restore all of creation from its bondage to the Power of Sin, then what could stand in God’s way?

“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks back in Romans 8.

If God made each of us and all that is and called it very good- that’s Genesis 1.

And if God is determined to make each of us and all that is beautiful again- that’s Genesis 12.

If God in Jesus Christ came for all- that’s John 1.

If Christ died for all- that’s 2 Corinthians 5.15.

If Jesus the Judge was judged in your place, once for all- that’s Hebrews 10.

And if God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit, the first sign, the harbinger of what God intends to do for all of creation- 1 Corinthians 15

If that’s what God intends, then what is to stop God from getting what God wants?

If God’s unambiguous aim is the salvation of all, then what ultimately can get in God’s way?

Because by definition NOTHING can deny God what God desires.

That’s 2 Timothy 2.13.

Or, as Paul frames it back in Romans 8: ‘What can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? What, in the end, can separate us from God?

And one by one Paul proceeds to eliminate the possibilities:

Hardship. Check. Injustice. Check. Persecution. Famine. Check. Check.Nakedness. Nope.War. Not it either. It can’t separate us from the love of God. None of them. Not Death. Not Rulers. Not Powers. Neither things present nor things to come. Not anything in all of creation. Nothing can separate us from what God wants to do with us.

Except-

The Apostle Paul does leave one possibility off his list: Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. War. Death. Rulers. Powers.

There is one possibility missing from Paul’s list.

One potential disqualifier remains: Us.

Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. Sword. Not any of them can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, but what about us?

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What about us? Can we separate ourselves from the love of God?

Can we separate ourselves from God through our unbelief, through our lack of faith, through our disobedient refusal to accept the grace of God in Jesus Christ?

Do we possess that power? Do we possess the ability to separate ourselves forever from the love of God? To slam the door and throw the lock?

Can we really run away and hide forever from a God who’s so determined to get us he chases us all the way to a cross and back? If Nakedness and Famine and War can’t do it, can we? Can we separate ourselves from God so that the God who desires the salvation of all only ends up with some?

    Can we make it so that the God who wants all only gets some?

Do we have the capacity to keep from God the everything God wants?

That’s the question Paul takes up next in Romans 9-11 and he does so by turning to the most obvious example available to him.

Israel.

The Jews- those who’ve received the message of the Gospel and not responded in faith and obedience.

When it comes to unbelievers like them, has the Word of God failed? Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 9.

How are they to be saved by him in whom they have not believed? Paul asks in Romans 10.

It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it? Paul asks at the top of today’s chapter.

And just the grammar of that last question gives away the answer. As soon as Paul refers to Israel as God’s People he’s already shown his tell: “By no means!” Paul answers immediately in verse 1.

By no means! God has not rejected God’s People. His chosen People.  The People he’s promised, no-strings-attached: “I will be your God and you will be my People.”

It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it?

By no means – for if God will break his promise to them, then Paul could’ve ended his letter back in Romans 8.

And his list could’ve been a lot shorter.

Who can separate us from the love of God? Well, Paul, it turns out God can separate us from God. God can break his no-strings-attached unconditional covenant promise. God can reject God’s People.

So-

Has God rejected God’s People?

By no means! is the only possible answer for Paul.

God has not rejected God’s People because they reject God’s Messiah.

Or rather, in rejecting God’s Messiah they have not separated themselves from the love of God. Because Israel- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.

Paul’s whole letter to the Romans has been about what God does not about what we do, and Paul’s focus on the agency of God doesn’t change when he turns to God’s People in chapters 9-11.

God’s People- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.

They’re not the acting agents. They’re not behind their lack of belief. Their failure of faith is not their fault. They’ve not decided to disobey. No.

If God cannot break a no-strings-attached promise, if- by no means- has God rejected his People, then that leaves only one possibility for Paul.

Israel’s rejection of Christ and God’s apparent rejection of them- it’s God’s doing, not their own.

And, Paul says, it fits a pattern of what God has always done:

God choosing Abel over Cain. God choosing Jacob over Esau. Moses over Pharaoh. God choosing David over Saul. God choosing Israel over all the other nations of the earth.  What looks like God’s rejection of some in scripture always serves God’s election of all. Even the Father rejecting the Son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” even that forsaking is for all.

Have God’s People stumbled so as to fall away forever from God? Paul asks in verse 11 before he answers in the very same breath: “No!”

Instead their stumbling, their rejection- like Abel instead of Cain, like Sarah instead of Hagar, like Isaac instead of Ishmael- their stumbling is for the reconciliation of the whole world, Paul says in verse 15.

The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.

Let me say that again because it’s so paradoxical it can only be Gospel:

The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.

The failure of some to believe is in fact the means by which God is working even now to show mercy to all.

Paul calls this means a “mystery.”

“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon some of Israel, until all [the world] has come to God.”

Only, in the New Testament, the word mystery doesn’t refer to something still unknown to us. In the New Testament, a mystery isn’t something that leaves you still in the dark scratching your head. In the New Testament, a mystery is a secret that’s been revealed to us by God- a mystery is a secret that can be told.

As when the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery…” and then Paul proclaims the secret that’s been revealed to us: “We will not die…we will be changed…for on the day of Resurrection we will be raised…that which is perishable will become imperishable.”

Likewise, here Paul writes to the Church at Rome: “I want you to understand this secret that’s been revealed to us…”

The mystery- the mystery is that God has chosen some for disobedience so that others might obey.

The mystery is that God has chosen some for disbelief so that others might believe.

The opened secret is that God has chosen ungodliness for some so that others might find God.

“…a hardening has come upon them…” Paul says.

Note the passive voice. Notice, it’s not: “They’ve hardened their hearts.” It’s come upon them. God is doing it.

Just as you believe in Jesus Christ solely by the gracious work of God upon you, so too they disbelieve because of the work of God upon them.

A hardening has come upon some so that all might come to God, Paul says.

And then in the next verse, Paul declares: “…so all Israel will be saved.” Pantes is the word and Paul doesn’t qualify it all. It means all.

Notice what Paul doesn’t say-

He doesn’t say all Israel will believe. He doesn’t say all Israel will confess Jesus Christ and thereby be saved. He just says all Israel will be saved. Your belief, their unbelief- it’s a mystery.

It’s all God’s doing.

Your belief is not your doing. Their unbelief is not their doing.

It’s all God’s doing.

So-

Those who reject the love of God in Jesus Christ, those who reject the Gospel, they’re not enemies of God. God has made them enemies of the Gospel for you.

For your sake: “…God has imprisoned some in disobedience so that God might be merciful to all.”

You see, for Paul the danger isn’t that unbelievers could ever separate themselves from the love of God in Christ Jesus; the danger is that believers like you will draw that conclusion.

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A few days after our conversation about Hell, I left in Officer Moore’s mailbox a copy of a book, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

It’s a fable about the residents of Hell taking a bus trip to Heaven. They’re given the option to stay but, one by one, they choose to turn and go back.

I had dog-eared some pages and highlighted some text for Officer Moore, hoping we could talk about it the next time I saw him.

Specifically, I highlighted these words:

It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Your will be done.’

I left the book in his mailbox.

A week later I went to solitary to see if he wanted to talk.

As always he refused to buzz me in but this time when I mentioned I was there to talk to him, he didn’t give in. He wouldn’t let me in.

I asked if he read the book. Not saying anything, he got up and walked to the entrance door, his body was one big snarl. He slid the book between the bars.

‘A whole lot of nonsense’ he grumbled at me. And then he told me to go the Hell away.

Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and quick-witted pastor you see before you today. To be honest, back then I hadn’t ever read the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Because if I had I could’ve told him.

You’re right, I could’ve said to him. It is a whole lot of nonsense. C.S. Lewis might’ve known a lot about lions and wardrobes and Turkish Delight, but he didn’t know jack abut this secret that’s been revealed to us: the mystery. 

     The mystery of our disobedience.

You’re right, I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve said to him.

Hell is where the door is locked from the inside by us?! That’s a whole lot of nonsense. 

     Not only is it idolatrous, for it imagines a Self who desires are stronger than God’s desire. 

     It completely misses the mystery that’s been revealed to us: that salvation is the work of God where even our ‘No’ to God serves God’s ultimate ‘Yes’ to us. Even our ‘No’ to God is itself the work of God working towards what God wants for all. 

     You’re right, I could’ve shot back at the Sergeant.  

     It is a whole lot of nonsense. 

     How could we ever separate ourselves forever from the love of God in Jesus Christ when even the disobedience of some is part of God’s plan for all? 

     God is bigger than our badness. 

     We can’t lock Hell’s doors from the inside because ultimately the work of God is going to make even our disobedience and disbelief work in our favor because of his favor, his unmerited favor, which is his grace. 

     The disobedience and disbelief of some is only temporary. 

     God will banish all ungodliness. 

      God will turn disobedience to obedience. God will turn disbelief into belief. 

     God will transform unfaithfulness to faithfulness as surely as he can bring life from death. 

     And in the meantime- I could’ve told him.

     There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord- whether you like it or not.

     There is nothing about you that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

    There is nothing in all of creation- not war, not famine, not powers or persecution, not even you- there is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God because everything in creation in is a work of God’s grace. 

     Even your disbelief. 

Maybe you can lock the door for a time, I could’ve said to him, but forever? In the end God will raze even Hell to get what God wants.

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Of course, if I had told him all that back then, he would’ve just grumbled some more.

If all are saved, no matter what, then what’s the point? He might’ve replied.

Why should I bother following your Jesus?

     Back then I wasn’t the wise and seasoned preacher you see before you. I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to say to him what I’d say today:

What’s the point if all are saved? 

     What’s the point of being first rather than last? 

    Why be found rather than lost? 

     Why know the truth rather than live in ignorance? 

     

     Why be fully human?

     What’s the point? 

To ask the question is to miss the point.

     

     

 

 

 

 

    Stanley Hauerwas identifies the essence of Christianity thus:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”

     If Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos and the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

When the Risen Jesus commissions the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he tells them the way they will manifest his lordship is by baptizing and making disciples of all nations; that is, Jesus commissions them to plant communities of faith. The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call bulls@#$ on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge.

This is slippery work for Christians in America, more difficult for us than it was for the first Christians.

It’s easy to be shorn of any illusions about the goodness of your nation when it’s making you lion food for Rome’s entertainment.

The first Christians thus harbored no confusion that the Kingdom of Caesar was commensurate with the Kingdom of God so their calling to be an alternative community, a set-apart people within the polis, was more self-evident than it is to us who live in an allegedly Christian nation.

About that nation, presently led (I use that term with no small amount of irony) by The Donald.

Many Christians, primarily progressive Christians but not uniformly so (e.g. Catholic conservatives like Michael Gerson and Ross Douthat and even my muse and mentor, David Bentley Hart, who is Orthodox), view support for The Donald as outside the bounds of Christian endorsement. Rev. Willam Barber, understandably if mistakenly in my view, has characterized even prayer for The Donald as “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.”

The danger posed to America by The Donald, the thinking goes, is so grave Christians must meet it with protest, mockery, and resistance. Certainly all of those are valid forms of prophetic Christian witness, but i wonder if those are the only ways to resist, or, even, the first way to do so.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the danger of patriotism is not love of one’s country but that very often patriotism does not allow for confession of collective sin nor expressions of repentance. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics that to profess Jesus as Lord in the midst of this ‘religion’ of nationalism is to confess one’s own complicity in sustaining the very Powers the Church confronts. People forget- Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazis not to save the Jews but to protect his nation from the destruction the Nazis were wreaking upon it.

As a German Christian, Bonhoeffer’s first response to Hitler was to confess his Church’s own complicity in creating the conditions for the Nazism he now felt the Church was charged by God to resist.

Admittedly, the analogy to Hitler and Nazi Germany is an indelicate one. The takeaway from Bonhoeffer however is this one: perhaps resisting The Donald as the Enemy and his stubborn legion of supporters as the other is an insufficient Christian posture. Maybe like Bonhoeffer progressive Christians et al would do better to discern and confess the ways we’re guilty of creating the conditions ripe for The Donald’s demagoguery. What has the Church in America and the Left in America left neglected such that Americans felt only he could give them a voice ? And by what, I mean, of course, who. Who have we neglected?To what extend are we culpable such that those voters accepted The Donald’s (idolatrous) language of “Only I can help you…?”

Bottom line:

 Bonhoeffer provides a needful reminder in our current cultural climate.

Without confession, resistance only perpetuates the cultural antagonisms, which produced the very president progressives now feel compelled to combat.

In this respect, to call BS, as Hauerwas counsels Christians, entails a willingness for Christians to own and name their own BS; that is, their promiscuity with other lords.

For Episode #105, we talked with Brad Todd, a founding partner of the political consulting firm On Message

Brad talked with us about his new book, The Great Divide, about the Trump voter. Along the way he opines on gun rights, why United Methodist apportionments are bad, what Amazon portends about the future of both the Republican Party and the United Methodist Church, and why progressives need to pace their rage.

Brad earned his first paycheck as a writer at age 14 and he hasn’t shut up since. A refugee from journalism, Brad managed winning campaigns and led a state party before stumbling onto his future and present as an ad-maker.

Brad’s 2014 clients defeated three incumbent Democratic U.S. Senators in a single election cycle, a feat unmatched by any Republican media consultant in 34 years. Brad’s ads have been noted in the national media as “devastatingly effective” (Washington Post) and “jazzy, edgy, and hip – everything you don’t expect in politics” (USA Today).

A sixth-generation native of the rural Clax Gap community in East Tennessee, Brad is known for advertising that matches the cultural nuances of his clients’ districts and elevates their own unique personalities.

Brad’s candidate clients have included six U.S. Senators, three Governors, and more than two dozen congressmen. Todd’s firm, OnMessage Inc., is the only media firm to have beaten a House Democratic incumbent in each of the last four election cycles. In 2010, Todd was the lead consultant for the Republican takeover of the United States House under the leadership of Rep. Pete Sessions and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Outside the candidate arena, Todd has earned national recognition for his advertising on the issue of school choice and he has provided strategic and brand building advice for professional sports organizations.

He has a B.A. from Rhodes College and an M.A. from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Brad frequently writes opinions columns. Many are published in POLITICO, CNN.com, Roll Call, FoxNews.com, and appears on the Meet the Press Daily with Chuck Todd.

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     The present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord, who is yet contending against the Principalities and Powers, should determine how we define the meaning of faith (pistis)

The pistis word group can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.

But if the stage we occupy in the Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then, as Matthew Bates argues in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, the strongest and clearest definition of pistis is allegiance. 

Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him; he cared whether they were loyal to him.

Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not affectation but allegiance.

Defining faith in terms of allegiance makes clear that what’s expected of us as subjects of the Lord Jesus is an embodied faithfulness that renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works’ moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.

To be allegiant subjects of this King is not to coerce others into obedience but to conform ourselves in obedience to him, an obedience that might itself call out and invite others to become a part of his people. Added to the scandal of particularity is the scandal that what God has done through a particular crucified Jew is for all people. That Christ’s Lordship is a claim for and over all people; however, does not mean as his subjects we’re tasked with subjugating all people to that claim.

As John Howard Yoder says:

“Our faithfulness to Jesus the Lord entails becoming locally explicit about Jesus” not through Christendom coercion (or attractional manipulation that profits from the vestiges of Christendom) but through “the reign of God being concretely and locally visible in laces around the world.”

“The primary task and indeed mission of the church is its own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Virtually all of the epistles are written to that end. As such, however, the church as a converted and converting people is also itself a constant invitation and call to the citizens of the wider world to enter the life of the people of God.”

Put another way, Christians did not change Rome by attempting to change Rome. Christians changed Rome by living faithfully within Rome as subjects of a different Caesar.

Consider how our own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can be conveyed through the liturgy simply by retranslating pistis as allegiance.

For example, the Apostles Creed could be rephrased so it became more obvious what is at stake in the profession: “I pledge allegiance to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth…and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

And at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…” 

At the Table: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to give allegiance to him.”

Familiar scripture suddenly become like TNT when you redefine pistis in alignment with our confession that Christ is Lord: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and become allegiant to me.” Just that verse becomes an altar call that calls for a lot more than your mental assent or an affectation in your heart.

Or this week’s lectionary Gospel: “Whoever has allegiance [to me] the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.” That’s a mighty word when you remember Jesus has in mind King Herod who, at his despotic whim, had a mountain moved for his palace.

Stanley Hauerwas identifies the essence of Christianity thus:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bulls@#$.”

Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos and the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call BS on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge and the power of the practices of the Church to call BS becomes more apparent when we translate faith in terms of allegiance.

 

     “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord…you will be saved”

– Romans 10.9-10

     As Matthew Bates points out in his great book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, the word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means “a public declaration of fealty.” In other words, what Paul says will save you for God is the equal and opposite expression of what Rome said would save you from its wrath by confessing “Caesar is Lord.”

Notice:

Paul doesn’t say “If you confess that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to David (or Abraham), then you will be saved.”

Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God incarnate then you will be saved.

Nor does Paul say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins.

When it comes to salvation and the necessary confession of faith for it, Paul focuses squarely on one specific stage of the Gospel: the Lordship of Jesus.

Why?

Why does Paul fix our participation in God’s salvation to the confession of Jesus as Lord? Why not confess that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; believe and be saved? Why not while we were yet sinners…put your faith in what he’s done for you and you will be saved?

Why does Paul say that in order to be saved we must confess Jesus not as Savior or Substitute or Sacrifice, not as Son of Man or Son of God, but as Lord?

Because, for Paul, the incarnation and crucifixion, the resurrection and reconciliation- those are all past perfect events.

     The present Lordship of Christ is the stage of the Gospel we now occupy.

What Paul summarizes as the Gospel in Romans 1 he spells out in 1 Corinthians 15. The Gospel he receieved which he in turn handed to the Church in Corinth has 8 parts to it or stages. Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus:

  1. preexisted with the Father
  2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promise to David
  3. died for sins in accordance with the scriptures
  4. was buried
  5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
  6. appeared to many
  7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord
  8. and will come again as judge.

Note the shift, both in Paul’s Gospel and in the Apostles Creed, from the past tense to the present tense. Paul says that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus is Lord because that’s where we are all at in the story.

It’s a non-negotiable part of the Gospel. Jesus is Lord right now, currently in residence as Lord and King to whom God has given dominion over heaven and earth.

To accept that present-tense point in the Gospel is to acknowledge the other parts of the Gospel that preceded it; likewise, to deny Jesus’ Lordship is to devalue the Gospel that precedes it. The enthronement of the crucified and risen Jesus to the right hand of God to be Lord isn’t ancillary to Paul’s Gospel but is the climax of it. The cross and resurrection aren’t ends in themselves; they are the means by which God establishes Jesus as the Earth’s true and rightful Lord.

As Abraham Kuyper said:

“There is not a square inch now in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ who is Sovereign over all, does not cry “Mine!””

     When we deemphasize the Ascension of Jesus, we immediately neuter the Gospel of the only present-tense element to it.

All that remains is the Gospel’s past and the future tenses. We demote Jesus from Lord of the cosmos to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs, which produces a false distinction between Jesus as a personal lord and Jesus as Lord of the Cosmos.

Salvation then becomes the promise of a future reality we access by agreeing to propositions about what Jesus did in the past rather than salvation being a present reality into which we’re incorporated by baptism and in which we participate already as subjects of the Lord who reigns now.

If this sounds like a picayune grammatical distinction, then consider the qualitative difference for discipleship:

“Jesus taught 2,000 years that we should love our enemies.”

   Versus:

“The one who taught us to love our enemies 2,000 years ago is, this very moment, Lord of heaven and earth.”

Without Ascension, the Sermon on Mount can remain safely in the past, leaving us free to argue with it or agreed to it. If the Preacher on the Mount is right now Lord, suddenly his sermon becomes less about assent and more a matter of obedience.

    This weekend I went back to preach at the church where I first came to the faith as a teenager, Woodlake United Methodist Church. They’re in the midst of a sermon series called ‘Curveball: When Life Doesn’t Play Fair.”

Here’s my sermon on Matthew 6.1-13, the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives the disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

I’ll post the video when I have it.

God’s Not Throwing You the Curve

     It’s strange and exciting to be preaching here today. I want to thank you all for the opportunity.

I mean, it only took incurable cancer and 20-something years for you to get me here but who’s counting? At this rate I’ll have to contract the Zika virus to get invited back.

Other than a shot-gun wedding I attended as a kid, where even the crucifix on the altar wall looked like Jesus had misgivings about the bride’s and groom’s chances, I’d never darkened the doorway of a church until my mother forced me to come to Woodlake Church one Christmas Eve when I was a teenager.

As I tell my congregation all the time, I’m your fault.

Dennis Perry, my associate pastor at Aldersgate, is the one responsible for me being a minister today. But you all are the ones responsible for making me a Christian- just in the nick of time too, I think.

I want to thank Gordon for the invitation to preach for you today.

I feel like Gordon is a brother from another mother (unless my mother was up to things I’m not aware of). Not only is Gordon a hardcore Nationals fan like myself, Dennis Perry, my associate pastor, is also the pastor who started this church so both Gordon and I know what it’s like to clean up after Dennis.

I was confirmed here at Woodlake 23 years ago.

23 years- it was a different world. Things were completely different back then.

For example, back then, 23 years ago…

The White House was mired in scandal and being chased by a special prosecutor because of a President who might also a sexual predator (those jokes go over better inside the Beltway).

And back then, the Republicans held both houses of Congress yet seemed incapable of any legislative wins.

Meanwhile, Russia had just invaded a neighboring republic and was undermining American interests abroad and OJ Simpson’s legal troubles were all over TV and Talk Radio.

Like I said, it was a completely different world!

I remember my first confirmation class. After beginning with a spaghetti dinner, the Reverend Dennis Perry taught our lesson.

Back then, Dennis Perry wasn’t yet the white-haired, humor-less, passion-less, husk of his former self he is today.

No, back then everything was different.

Back then, Dennis obviously was into fashion (look at that sweater) and progressive gender roles.

Back then, Dennis was bold. Bold enough to wear Wilfred Brimley sunglasses even before the age of 65. I’d never wear those sunglasses, but that’s because I’m a coward. Dennis- back then Dennis was brave.

23 years ago I was confirmed here.

Because I hadn’t grown up in the Church, I was about 5 years older than any of the other confirmation students, which meant- by default- I was smartest one in the class, which meant I loved confirmation.

I was different back then.

I remember that first class. Dennis wheeled in a dry erase board. I remember, he seemed ill-prepared, like he was just shooting from the hip.

He sketched a scribble-scrabble drawing on the board, trying to help us conceive of the difference between eternity and creation.

And then in his terrible hand-writing, Dennis wrote a funny, little word on the board:

immutable.

     ‘That means,’ he said, ‘God doesn’t change.’

We might change. The world might change.

The circumstances of your life might change.

But God does not change. Ever.

Then he said the word again and underlined it.

Immutable.

God doesn’t change.

That’s a lesson I learned when you all confirmed me into the faith 23 years ago.

And when a curveball called cancer nearly destroyed my life 2 years ago, it’s the lesson that saved my faith.

Immutable.

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That was 23 years ago. And the world does change.

23 years ago, according to Gallup, 40% of Americans had attended a worship service in the previous 2 weeks, and 20 years ago if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was 8%.

It was a different world.

Over 30 years ago, the year this church was founded, 50% of Americans, according to Gallup, attended worship every Sunday.

And the year this church was founded, 30 years ago, if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was just 4%.

It was a different world. It is a different world.

Just last year, 20% of Americans checked ‘None’ when asked about their religious affiliation.

One-fifth of everybody.

If you count those between the ages of 20 and 30 the percentage- emerging adults- jumps up to over 30%.

Over 40% of that age group report that religion ‘doesn’t matter very much to them.’

Not only does the Church exist in a completely different world now, the Church is also carrying a great deal of baggage into this new world.

    According to a Barna study of those between the ages of 20-30, when given a list of possible attributes to describe Christians:

91% checked ‘yes’ to the description ‘anti-homosexual.’

87% checked ‘yes’ next to the adjective ‘judgmental.’

85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical.‘

72% checked ‘yes’ to ‘out of touch with my reality.’

70% checked ‘yes’ to ‘insensitive.’

64% said Christians were ‘not accepting of those different than them.’

All that together adds up to one very large millstone Christians are putting around our necks today.

A millstone whose message is clear, if unintended: God is against you.

     Who wouldn’t check ‘None’ if that god was the other option?

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As familiar as the Lord’s Prayer is, what’s often forgotten is the reason Jesus gives the disciples this prayer in the first place. Because it’s not that they didn’t know how to pray.

As uneducated 1st century Jews from backwater Galilee they knew how to pray better than all of you, and they did so more often. As 1st century Jews, the disciples would’ve had all 150 Psalms memorized, ready to recite by heart.

3 times a day (sundown, sunup, and 3:00 PM) they would’ve stopped wherever they were and whatever they were doing and prayed.

They would’ve prayed the shema (‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’). They would’ve prayed the amidah, a serious of 18 benedictions.

And they would’ve recited the 10 Commandments.

3 times a day.

So Jesus doesn’t give the disciples this prayer because they didn’t know how to pray. They knew how. This prayer isn’t about the how of prayer it’s about the who:

‘Do not be like the pagans when you pray…’ 

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The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed.

The pagans believed god’s mood towards us could swing from one fickle extreme to its opposite, that god could be offended or outraged or flattered by us, that sometimes god could be for us but other times god could be against us.

And so the pagans of Jesus’ day, they would pray ridiculously long prayers, rattling off every divine name, invoking every possible attribute of god, heaping on as much praise and adoration as they could muster.

In order to please and placate god.

To manipulate god. To get god to be for them and not against them.

You see, the pagans believed that if they were good and prayed properly then god would reward them, but if they were bad and failed to offer an acceptable worship then god would punish them.

The who the pagans prayed to was:

An auditor always tallying our ledger to bestow blame or blessing based on what we deserve. An accuser always watching us and weighing our deeds to condemn us for punishment or recommend us for reward.

The pagans had a lot of names for who they prayed to: Mars, Jupiter…But scripture has one name for the kind of person the pagans prayed to: שָׂטָן.

Ha-satan.

What we call Satan.

In the Old Testament, satan doesn’t have 2 horns, a tail and a pitchfork. In the Old Testament, satan isn’t the Prince of Darkness or the personification of evil. In the Old Testament, satan is our accuser- that’s all the word means.

Satan is one who casts blame upon us, who finds fault in us, who indicts us for what we deserve.

The reason Jesus gives this prayer isn’t methodology.

It’s theology.

It’s not the how.

It’s the who.

Because the pagans got who god is so completely wrong, they didn’t know how to pray. They went on and on, thinking they needed to change god’s mind about them.

Jesus warns us not to be like the pagans not because he’s worried we’ll prattle on too long or call upon the name of Zeus.

No, Jesus doesn’t want us to turn God into a kind of satan.

Jesus doesn’t want us to mistake God for an accuser, to confuse God for one who casts blame and doles out what’s deserved. Jesus gives this prayer so we won’t ever slip into supposing that God is against us.

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Actually, it’s not really Jesus’ prayer.

It’s the Qaddish.

An ancient Jewish prayer the disciples would’ve recognized and been able to recite themselves. And because they would’ve known it, they would’ve instantly noticed how Jesus changes it.

He changes it right from the beginning. Rather than starting, as the Qaddish does, with ‘hallowed be his great name’ Jesus changes it to ‘Father in Heaven.’

And, of course, Jesus has in mind not just any father, not ‘father’ in the abstract, not anything analogous to your father or my father but his Father.

The Father who, Jesus says, sends rain upon the just and the unjust. The Father who, no matter what we deserve, just sends love. The Father who forgives for we know not what we do. The Father who never stops waiting and is always ready to celebrate a prodigal’s return. The Father who reacts to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You see, Jesus changes the Qaddish so that from the outset we are pointed to someone far different than who the pagans prayed to.

We’re pointed to his Father. And that’s the second change Jesus makes to the Qaddish: the number. Jesus takes it from the singular and makes it plural. It’s not just his Father; it’s our Father now. We’re brought into his relationship with his Father. We’re adopted.

One way of making sure we never get wrong who it is we’re praying to is to remember we’re praying to Jesus‘ Father. He made it plural. We’ve been included. And Jesus‘ Father never cast blame on him, never accused him, never acted like a satan, never did anything but love him.

The last change Jesus makes to the Qaddish is to the end.

Jesus adds on ‘deliver us from the evil one.’

In Greek that’s ho-ponerous. In Hebrew, it’s ha-satan.

Deliver us from the accuser.

In other words, the very concern that prompts Jesus to give this prayer in the first place is tacked onto the ending of it.

When we pray, whenever we pray- Jesus says, which for him means 3 times a day- when we pray, we should pray to be delivered from ever thinking of God as our accuser, from ever thinking of God as one who casts down upon us, from ever thinking that God is against us, that God is the one throwing curve balls at us.

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A year and a half ago, I woke up from emergency abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive, ultimately incurable, cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. No matter how many Hallmark cards you get telling you that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, you can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting.

When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And, when you’re as narcissistic as me, you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

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I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized it, here at Woodlake Church because, you know, might as well come full circle.

I pictured the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this sanctuary is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream folks send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like Lily Pulitzer exploded all over it.

In my daydream there’s flowers all over and the pews are packed.

Its standing room only out in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Gal Gadot.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis Perry, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the piano Michael Berkley plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Michael Berkley, all the while, is chagrined, wishing I’d instead chosen Elton John’s Candle in the Wind for my funeral service.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar, my casket is followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the Bishop Sharma Lewis slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late but Stephen Hawking assures her in his Speak-N-Spell voice that she can sit next to him.

After the opening hymn, when Michael Berkley finishes, Dennis gets up to preach.

And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Gordon and Gordon, first, he reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then Gordon looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, an ensemble choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the singers veer off key because Michael Berkley’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it.

So the choir, even if they’re singing off key, they’re singing their heart out enough that Scarlett Johansson leans over to ask Dennis if she can borrow a tissue.

‘Can I have one too?’ Penelope Cruz asks Dennis just as the singers belt out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali, my wife, chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me.

She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at Woodlake swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

And as God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to the reception where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture.

Of me.

But I digress.

My point is-

     For a long time, I thought this malady in my marrow, this curveball called incurable cancer, was going to kill me quick.

And I daydreamed.

And I raged. And I despaired.

And I asked questions- I asked a question.

You know the question:

Why is God doing this to me?

Usually, as a pastor, I’m not the one asking that question; usually I’m on the receiving end of the question.

The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-

LIFE HAPPENS.

LIFE THROWS YOU CURVE BALLS.

-and we think…God must be punishing us.

That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

That this curve ball coming in on us because God is against us.

Life happens and we want to know why. Why is God doing this to me?

And of course we don’t have answers to the why. Any one who tells you they do is a liar.

But we do have an answer about the who.

The 1 answer Jesus gives us, the answer Jesus gives us again and again, is this one:

     The god you think is doing this to you isn’t God. 

God’s not like that. My Father isn’t like that. Our Father isn’t like that. Don’t be like the pagans.

And just in case you forget, here’s this prayer.

When you pray…pray this way.

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Very often the god we pray to, the god in the back of our minds, the god we unwittingly proclaim is a kind of satan.

A little ‘g’ god who throws lightening bolts and curve balls at us because of this or that sin.

While I was sick and in intense chemo for a year, I wore this prayer Jesus gives us thin and threadbare I prayed it so much.

I prayed it constantly because, on the one hand, I didn’t have the strength to come up with my words or wishes of own, but mostly I prayed it because I needed this constant reminder.

The reminder that is the reason Jesus gives this prayer.

The reminder in that strange word Dennis Perry at Woodlake Church first taught me.

The reminder that God doesn’t change.

God’s never changed. God will never change.

God just is Love and unconditionally in love with each of us.

Dennis taught me that when I was confirmed into the faith, but when a curve ball called incurable cancer upended my life, it saved my faith too.

God doesn’t change.

And so God never changes his mind about us. You.

God’s love does not depend on what we do or what we’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

God doesn’t change.

God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints.

As far as God’s love is concerned, our sin makes absolutely no difference to God.

We can’t change God because God doesn’t change.

God- Jesus says- sends rain upon the just and the unjust.

God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve.

God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.

God is an old lady who’ll turn her house upside-down for something that no one else would find valuable,

a shepherd who never gives up the search for the single sheep,

a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father-

who never stops looking down the road and is always ready to say ‘we have no choice but to celebrate.’

God is for us. You.

Always.

Nothing can change that.

Because God doesn’t change.

And if God doesn’t change, then God isn’t the one throwing you the curve.

The god you think is throwing you curves isn’t God.

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I like to think I’m unique in all things; the cancer I got is incredibly rare.

The chances you’ll get what I got are tiny.

But the chances you’ll have some curveball or another upend your life- those odds…

are dead-nuts around 100%.

And even if you make it through life without a curveball you won’t make it out life alive.

So remember.

Remember what I was so grateful to remember that I’d learned here.

That 1 word I remember Dennis teaching me: immutable.

Or maybe instead to help you remember, whenever you pray…

Pray like this…